Dave’s Guitar Heroes Pt. 4 “Classical Guitars”

When I was about 14 or 15 I started listening to a tape my Mum owned of the guitarist John Williams called “Guitar Music from Spain, England, Japan, Mexico & South America”.  Back then I couldn’t read sheet music so I started learning some of the music by ear. I’d gradually transcribe it from the tape into Guitar TAB so I wouldn’t forget it. The two main pieces I learnt then were Albeniz’s ‘Asturias’ and the Japanese piece ‘Sakura Variations’ by Yocoh. I still play Sakura to this day, and have even played it on tour in Japan! Hearing John Williams play so beautifully inspired me to begin a lifelong journey with classical music. Below are Youtube and Spotify playlists featuring my favourite classical guitarists and some favourite classical guitar pieces, followed by some thoughts on each guitarist.
Julian Bream

My favourite classical guitarist, by quite a distance, is the English guitarist Julian Bream. The reason I like Bream so much is that he is, first and foremost, a musician rather than being just a guitarist. His interpretative skills are world class. The repertoire he chose to play was also very wide ranging and he was groundbreaking in the way he commissioned new works from leading composers of his time. The classical guitar world has hundreds, perhaps thousands of technically brilliant players, many of whom would have better textbook technique than Bream. However few of them come close to matching Bream’s masterful musicality. Bream can bring out so many wonderful textures and colours from the guitar, there are some tones he can produce that no other guitarist can. He seems a very nice chap indeed too in the mould of the eccentric English gent, as evidenced in this documentary. The pieces I’ve chosen for the playlist represent some of his finest interpretations, from Rodrigo’s magical ‘Passacaglia’, to the ‘Five Bagatelles’ he commissioned from William Walton and the baroque ‘Fantasie’ by Weiss. I never got to see Bream live, which is a great regret in life. He’s now retired, but he has passed the baton on to a supremely gifted young guitarist who is my newest classical guitar hero. More of which later.

John Williams

As I mentioned, that John Williams tape inspired me to explore classical guitar seriously. I have seen him in concert a few times and each time was a masterclass in almost flawless guitar playing. Williams is particularly renowned for his perfectionism. Classical guitar is extremely difficult to master and Williams surpassed the legendary Segovia to bring the level of guitar technique to the heights of any classical virtuoso. For that he is lauded the world over. I would say his output is a bit more uneven than Bream’s, but when he gets it right he is magnificent, as in the recordings of Yocoh’s ‘Sakura’, Domeniconi’s ‘Koyunbaba’ and Sagreras’ dazzling ‘El Colibri’. He was the first classical guitarist I saw in concert, at Dublin’s National Concert Hall in the mid-90’s. Aside from his guitar brilliance I loved the fact that he wore jeans on stage!

John Feeley

In 1998 my Mum and I went to a concert in Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery by John Feeley, who was advertised as Ireland’s finest classical guitarist. By the end of the concert I said to my Mum “He’s not just Ireland’s best, he’s as good as John Williams!”. My Mum encouraged me to chat with him about maybe getting some lessons. Being self-taught ’til then I was reluctant, but eventually I contacted him and met him at the DIT College of Music in Dublin where I played for him and he agreed to take me on as a student. I studied with John for the next five years, the latter four being during my undergraduate degree studies. John is a great teacher, very much a musician and a particularly brilliant interpreter of the music of J.S. Bach. John isn’t as world famous as some other guitarists on this list, but he should be. In recent years a video of him performing Bach’s imposing ‘Chaconne’ has propelled him to Youtube fame, it has over 3.5 million views! I’m lucky enough to have had John perform some of my compositions and I really enjoyed performing alongside him in the Cosmopolitan Guitar Quartet with Hugh Buckley and Niwel Tsumbu. The Spotify playlist features him playing some music by contemporary Irish composer John Buckley. Dr. Feeley did his doctorate in modern Irish classical guitar music and he is widely regarded as the leading expert in the area having commissioned numerous composers over the years.

Roland Dyens

It came as a shock to me when Roland Dyens, the great Tunisian-French guitarist/composer passed away in 2016, aged just 61. Dyens was a truly unique guitarist/composer, unlike anyone else in the classical guitar world. In 2000 I travelled to the Nürtingen Guitar Festival in Germany where I spent a wonderful week learning from great guitar masters including Dyens. I was part of the guitar orchestra class that he was conducting. A group of about 30 guitarists from around the world worked together under his direction on a brand new piece called “Suite Polymorphe”. Dyens had a wonderful way in rehearsals, incredibly patient and he could speak in about 7 languages so he could communicate to everyone easily. He brought us all for coffee after the last rehearsal and I got the opportunity to speak with him briefly. I saw him in concert quite a few times and always loved his approach. He never announced a programme, always began with an improvisation and moved through the concert spontaneously, playing pieces as he felt might suit the occasion. One of the remarkable things about him was his ability to play jazz almost as well as he played classical music. His compositions rank among the finest 20th/21st Century guitar works. I particularly like his “Libra Sonatine” which I learnt and played in my early 20’s.

Leo Brouwer

Cuban composer/guitarist Leo Brouwer is a true living legend of the guitar world. His diverse body of guitar works are performed by practically all classical guitarists. Brouwer’s music appeals so much because he has run the gamut of modern composing styles, from very avant-garde experimentalism to minimalism and nationalistic folk styles. As a classical guitar student I played lots of Brouwer’s music, both solo and in guitar ensembles. I particularly liked his solo piece Cuban Landscape with Bells and its sister pieces for guitar ensemble Cuban Landscape with Rain and Cuban Landscape with Rumba. I’ve never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Brouwer although I did attend a festival where he was supposed to attend but he had to pull out due to ill health, such a shame! Brouwer was, at one point, a brilliant concert guitarist, but a hand injury forced him to give up his guitar playing and instead he focuses on composing and conducting. Some recordings of Brouwer at his heyday exist and it is wonderful to hear his own interpretations of his compositions and the music of other composers, like his version of Piazzolla’s ‘La Muerte Del Angel’ on the playlists. You can also sense him ‘playing’ his own music when he conducts a guitar orchestra in “Cuban Landscape with Rain”.

Dusan Bogdanovic​

Dusan Bogdanovic is a Serbian guitarist/composer now living in the USA. I first heard about him in the early 2000s after getting a CD by Los Angeles Guitar Quartet member William Kanengiser which had his compositions ‘3 African Sketches’, pieces I later learnt and performed in concert. I also learnt his idiosyncratic “6 Balkan Miniatures”, which, at the time, made him stand apart from other classical guitar composers due to the complex time signatures inspired by Balkan folk music. In 2004 I attended Bogdanovic’s composition masterclasses at the Nürtingen Guitar Festival, which were very informative and also shattered one of my illusions! In 2001 I had a eureka moment as a composer when I thought I’d discovered a new way of composing which I called ‘Polymetric Cycles’. During his workshop Bogdanovic produced a book of compositions he’d written in 1990 called ” Polyrhythmic and Polymetric Studies for Guitar”. Within that book he talked about polymetric cycles and demonstrated how the concept of a polymetric cycle originated in ancient African music styles. So much for my great musical invention! I soon got over that and just enjoyed listening to Bogdanovic’s intellectual yet accessible thoughts on music. Later in the festival he played a double-header concert with Roland Dyens. Here he displayed truly virtuosic guitar skills and also shared a wonderful improvisation with Dyens at the end. Quite why Bogdanovic isn’t better known is beyond me, he is one of the most original classical guitarists I’ve seen and an excellent composer. 

Pat Metheny playing Steve Reich 

Pat Metheny is a jazz musician, not a classical guitarist, but he did premiere perhaps the most important guitar ensemble work by a classical composer of the late 20th Century, Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’. This hypnotic work, inspired by the Banda-Linda music of Central Africa and Metheny’s own brand of jazz fusion, was composed in 1987. It is now considered the definitive piece for multiple guitars. It has been played by numerous classical guitarists and guitar ensembles and it was even sampled by 90’s electronic music band ‘The Orb’ for their hit “Little Fluffy Clouds”.  Metheny’s version remains the finest I’ve heard, although my friend Niwel Tsumbu performed it a few years ago when Reich was in Cork for a festival of his music and though I wasn’t there to hear it, by all accounts Niwel’s interpretation could be the best.

Laura Snowden 

Last year I was Composer in Residence at the Classical Guitar Retreat in Scotland. Whilst there I asked two of the students who their favourite guitarist was, without hesitation both of them said Laura Snowden. I had kinda been out of the classical guitar world for about 15 years by then, so I’d never heard of her. Intrigued I decided to watch some of her Youtube videos. It didn’t take me long to understand why the younger generation of guitarists were holding her in such high regard. Laura is one of a very rare number of classical guitarists, like those mentioned above, who transcend the instrument and are simply great musicians, not just great guitarists. Laura is the best classical guitarist I’ve seen in a long time. She is also a great composer and holds another trump card up her sleeve that none of the other guitarists on this list hold, she sings beautifully and sometimes adds wordless singing to her guitar compositions. She also plays trad guitar in a folk group! In 2019 I was curating the Farmleigh Music and Arts Festival and decided to invite Laura to perform at it, for what was her Irish debut. She played solo and also joined Michael O’Toole, David Creevy and I in a new group I put together called ‘The Beckett Guitar Quartet’. It was wonderful to play alongside her and I look forward to working with her again in the future. Laura has yet to make a solo album, but I’m sure she is the future of the classical guitar, and none other than Julian Bream has taken her on as his protegé. Though she has no solo album yet, a beautifully produced video of her interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s epic “Nocturnal” has recently been released. I put this on the Youtube Playlist.

Pepe Romero

As a classical guitar student in my early 20’s I spent a lot of time playing the music of Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo. There was a documentary I saw on TV about Rodrigo which featured Pepe Romero as the main guitarist. He displayed a really deep understanding of Rodrigo’s music that was inspirational to me. I found an old cassette of him playing Rodrigo’s guitar works in Dublin’s Ilac Centre Library. The tape wasn’t available on CD then, so I transferred the tape to a blank CD and listened to it many times. Pepe Romero is one of Spain’s greatest ever guitarists and he is also part of the great guitar quartet Los Romeros with some of his family members. I’ve never seen Pepe Romero live, but his recordings are wonderful.

Heitor Villa-Lobos

If you study classical guitar you will inevitably study the music of Brazil’s greatest composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos is one of the very few guitarist-composers who is spoken of in the pantheon of the great 20th Century classical composers. He has a huge body of works and his piano, cello and orchestral music are played the world over. Though Villa-Lobos was never a concert guitarist, recently released recordings of him playing two of his famous guitar works are revelatory as they reveal a way of playing these works that no other classical guitarist had considered. The recordings are old and crackly private tapes, so they can be difficult to listen to if you’re not used to such things, but if you can move beyond the snaps, crackles and pops you will surely enjoy hearing the man himself play his beautiful music. As a student I played all of Villa-Lobos’ music. In recent years I’ve started playing a few of them again and I try to bring some of what I’ve learnt from Bossa Nova and Samba music to it, as I can hear in Villa-Lobos’ playing of his Choros No.1 that the rhythm is very connected to Bossa and Samba. They are all rooted in Brazilian folk music. Beyond his own recordings the definitive recordings of Villa-Lobos’ music are surely by Julian Bream, who met Villa-Lobos as a young man and gave the British Premiere of Villa Lobos’ Guitar Concerto. Villa-Lobos, who was self-taught, unusually used the little finger of his plucking hand, something that classical guitarists generally don’t do. Segovia was baffled by this technique and told Villa-Lobos that other guitarists couldn’t play his music that demanded the little finger. Villa-Lobos’ response was “If you don’t use it, then cut it off!” Coincidentally I naturally learnt to use my little finger a bit when teaching myself and I’ve composed some pieces which call for the use of the little finger, including “Four Etudes for Five Fingers”, commissioned by the late Charles Postlewate, a pioneer in Five Finger technique.

Other Guitarists, including Segovia

The guitarists above are just my personal favourites, there are many other wonderful classical guitarists worth exploring, some of whom would, in the eyes of classical guitar aficiandos, be technically better than some of those mentioned above. I will list a few other guitarists who I have enjoyed seeing, hearing and sometimes learning from, to give some more options.

Scott Tennant, David Russell, Manuel Barrueco,  Sharon Isbin, The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, Ana Vidovic, William Kanengiser, Zoran Dukic. Benjamin Dwyer, Avril Kinsey, Charles Postlewate, Nikita Koshkin, Pavel Steidl.

You may notice that the famous Andres Segovia isn’t on my list. I did try to get interested in Segovia’s playing when I was a guitar student. I bought some Segovia CDs and listened to them, however I never felt an urge to go back to them very often. Maybe his style sounded old-fashioned to me at the time. I also am put off by Segovia’s very conservative attitudes which led to a famous encounter with Igor Stravinsky. When Stravinsky asked Segovia “Why have you never requested I write music for you?”, Segovia responded “I do not want to insult your music by not playing it!” With those snide words Segovia robbed guitarists of a potential masterpiece from one of the most important classical composers of all time!